Learning Not to Cling
Learning Not to Cling
November 18, 2018
On Easter morning in the Gospel of John’s account, there is an extraordinarily intimate moment when the risen Christ appears to Mary. All the terrors of Holy Week have made the distance between herself and Jesus seem as wide as the ocean. She had witnessed it all: the entry into Jerusalem; the tensions at the temple; the crowds that turned on him; the courts who sentenced him. She suffered with him when he was crucified and something died deep within her when he died.
Now, three days later, having made her way to the tomb with two of the disciples who have since disappeared, she is standing and looking into and empty tomb. Two angels ask her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She answers, in essence, that she is crying because the worst has happened: someone has stolen the body. When she turns, she looks straight at the risen Christ but does not recognize him. He asks her the same question: “Woman, why are you weeping?” “Please,” she says, “Just show me where the body is—no questions asked. I will take him away.”
Then all of the pain and despair and suffering of the past week is broken with a single word, “Mary!” In Hebrew, she answers Jesus: “Rabbouni,” which means, “teacher.” That moment is so personal! Yet, the next moment is the heartbreaker: In my favorite translation, Jesus says: “Do not cling to me…” This moment isn’t going to last. The change that is happening is not done. Let me go.
Human beings cling. Last week, we listened to our ancestors in faith as they clung to all the worries that come with freedom: what if we get lost; what if we starve; what if we die of thirst. Bad things could happen. We might not have enough. And because we can imagine that this could be the case, we have to live with all the anxieties and doubts and horrible choices that we make when we cling to our fears and they define us.
Of course, in that wilderness, God makes sure that there is enough. There is manna in the morning and quail in the evening. No one is going to get to stockpile either because we are meant to live in dependence on God’s grace. We are meant to learn to trust. We are engaged and doing our work but we are not in charge. We are called to follow God’s calling and to follow God’s directions and be grateful for the God who is our God. Sure, we can imagine what it would be like to have more. However, the big question is can we turn the corner on being human and actually be grateful for what we have or will we cling to the desire for more?
In some ways, Mary, having made her way through Holy Week, all the way to the cross, all the way to the empty tomb, has been beaten down the way that we all have been beaten down at some point in our lives. She has seen so many awful things that all she can see when she looks in front of her is the next awful thing: someone has stolen the body. Her cynicism and her despair put her at risk for not being able to see what is really happening. You can cling to despair and be blinded by it. You can cling to your fears and think “going back to Egypt” (whatever that might look like for you) actually sounds pretty good.
Over and over again, God calls us back into the present. The former slaves see the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire that will lead them. They taste the bread that comes on the dew each morning and the quail that come each night. There is a God who cares for them and who is with them. Somehow, the awareness of that God’s presence opens them to the possibilities of the present. They have that moment when they step back and think, “This changes everything!”
Mary has that same moment. The risen Christ doesn’t offer an explanation to Mary. He simply whispers her name. In that instant, she is known and she knows whose presence she is in. Forget the centurions and the nails and the crowds and the terror: this changes everything!
If we can’t somehow wake up to the present moment and see that God is present in all moments, even the ones that feel incredibly hard, then we will be lost in our own despair. We have to open our eyes and see. We have to open our hearts and feel. We have to admit the possibility that we don’t know everything. If we can begin to live with trust and a willingness to be led and an openness to what can be amazing in this life, a whole knew world may open up to us. That’s where we need to go back and revisit Mary, though.
What does Jesus say to her? “Do not cling to me!” Almost as soon as something amazing happens, we want to cling to that moment. We want to hold onto it and never let it go. We want it to never end. Yet, change is always just a moment away. (Isn’t this the great irony of our lives: that when things are hard it feels like they are going to stay hard forever and when things are good, it feels so fleeting?)
This is true for Mary in her moment alone with the Risen Christ. She loved him. She had followed him for several years. She stood witness as he died. Now, what she has a moment of incredible validation. For a moment, she has living proof of who he was and who she is. In that moment, the most human thing in the world would be to cling to him: “I don’t want you to leave. I don’t want you to change. I don’t want to lose you again!” Mary gets to experience something amazing but she doesn’t get to control the moment. Without a doubt, she would hold onto the memory forever. However, her job as a human being going forward would be to let go of that moment of Christ’s presence and open herself to the ways in which Christ might be present in totally different ways in the future.
In all of our lives, there are stellar, defining moments for us when the stars seem to align and things are just right and we feel whole. No matter how carefully we try to study those moments and recreate them, they don’t occur on demand. We have to be open. We have to pay attention. We have to have hearts that can be moved and assumptions that can be challenged. We have to make ourselves available. And chances are, if there is something transforming that takes place, then two things will be true. It will not be anything at all like we were expecting. (In the words of C. S. Lewis, we will be “surprised by joy.”) And, just as importantly, it will not last. The question for us will always be whether we can forgive the world for changing like that, whether we can discover joy and still remember not to cling.
All of which brings us to Jonah, the great fictional prophet of the Old Testament. As I say that, I want you to know that there is at least as much truth in this story as there is in any history that we might read. Jonah is a perfect expression of the struggles which we all take on when we try to live our faith. Jonah’s problem is that God calls him to go where he would rather not go and to care about folks whom he really doesn’t like. I don’t know anyone who has taken faith seriously who has not been there and felt that: “Really God? You want me to do what? You want me to help who?” Jonah hates the Ninevites so that’s for sure where God is going to send him.
As we pick up the story, Jonah has been delivered by the “trans-Mediteranian fish” (as my professor used to call it) on the beach an Nineveh. Jonah, heard God’s calling and did what we all have done: he runs the other way. Then, what happens is what has happened to all of us: God makes sure that the people we are to help keep getting put in our path. Trust me here…the “fish” is the least interesting part of this story. It is just a means to express a great truth that if God has plans for you that don’t line up with your plans…well, you may want to adjust your plans.
Jonah tells God that he would rather die than help the Ninevites. God asks Jonah what he has to be so mad about. Instead of offering an answer like, maybe, “I’m mad because you are God and I am not!” Jonah runs off. He sulks. (Again, who among us hasn’t had a good old, I’m mad at God, sulk every now and then?) Jonah builds a shelter out of leafy branches to try and get some shade but it is not much of a shelter. So, because God cares, God grows a beautiful broad leafed tree to provide the shade that Jonah sought. Basking in the shade of that moment, Jonah is happy. As our translation says, “Life was looking up.”
However, in the next moment, God sends a worm. By the next day, the tree has withered away and is gone. Now, Jonah is in despair. He starts to faint. He prays to die. He cannot forgive life or God for taking away his tree. Things change and he his haunted by what he is convinced was better. He clings to what was.
Here’s the thing. Thanksgiving is right on the horizon. This is a day of gratitude. However, we are meant to be a people who live gratefully, 365 days a year. If we live out of fear like our ancestors in the wilderness, fear that the mashed potatoes or the dressing or the turkey won’t be perfect, fear that everyone’s every need won’t be met, gratitude will be blocked. If we don’t learn what enough is then we will never know just how much we have.
At the same time, if we can remember a Thanksgiving that we liked better—when those who used to join us were still with us, or when we lived where we used to live, or when this friend was still our friend, we will be in danger of clinging to what is gone and missing. We will miss the bounty and the joy of the present moment.
The moment in which we stand will never be perfect and it will never fully recreate a moment from our past that was pretty great. Rather, it will be what it is. The question will be whether we can love this moment for what it is, right here and right now. Can we immerse ourselves in today’s joy and then forgive today for ending and stand ready to discover the joy of tomorrow?